Happily, the term “Mr. Mom” is fading from use as more men embrace a progressive notion of fatherhood and masculinity. This positive development has, in turn, helped them gain an expanded appreciation of what it means to be an involved, lifelong dad vs. being a father, which is simply the result of a one-time biological act.
As we observe the horrors of Ukrainian fathers, grandfathers, and father figures separated from their families as they defend their country, mothers and grandmothers have been forced to assume some of the roles more traditionally associated with fathers. Of course, both inspired and empowered by the women’s movement of more than a half-century ago, more women have handled their family’s “traditional” male/father roles for a variety of reasons (many of which are beyond their control, as in Ukraine).
Much as I’ve discouraged the term “Mr. Mom,” I also resist the urge to think of these strong, independent, capable women as “Mrs. (or Ms.) Dad.”
Most parenting responsibilities (beyond actually giving birth) are not gender specific and can be shared by both parents. Today, this is increasingly the case and that’s a very good development for parents and kids alike. Today’s dads, therefore, are not likely to be asked the question I was asked more than 50 years ago when I brought my year-old daughter to the local playground in my New York City neighborhood: “Are you babysitting today?” Ouch.
Today’s dads are dramatically more present on playgrounds, in prenatal and parenting classes, at school conferences and events, at library story hours, as well as pushing strollers, changing diapers in public bathrooms, and carrying their infants in baby carriers. Unlike Michael Keaton’s character in the 1983 film, Mr. Mom, who was forced into the role of “substitute mother” after losing his salaried job, men these days are more likely to embrace their shared responsibilities as active dads. To apply an advertising slogan made popular during the height of the women’s movement, we can now look at the increased involvement of dads in all stages of their children’s lives and exclaim, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
But despite this greater involvement and shift in the paternal parenting landscape, many still tend to refer to dads who are involved, nurturing parents as “Mr. Mom.” Thinking of and labeling a dad’s nurturing parenting as maternal or feminine betrays a lingering habit and underlying sense that when men are nurturing, they are somehow not being “manly.”
In 1994, I coined the term “daddying” to describe the active, involved exuberance of my parenting, and the parenting of other men I knew. “Daddying” conveyed the sense of the lifelong process that I relished as I embraced my responsibilities for my children’s wellbeing: physical, emotional, social, intellectual, creative, moral, and spiritual. Becoming a parent changes one’s identity instantly and forever. This new word, “daddying,” not only captures that fundamental change, but also embodies the realization that fathers matter—in their presence as well as their absence.
For more than 25 years, I’ve conducted hundreds of hours of daddying interviews with men ages 16 to 104, from 20 countries, across all age, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. During my earliest interviews, the word “daddying” often stuck in my throat because it seemed awkward, and I was concerned that it would seem uncomfortable and trite to the fathers I was interviewing. But to my surprise, the use of the word itself seemed to give men permission to be in touch with a tender side of their personality. Although my interview question protocol required only 40 minutes of a dad’s time, the average interview often lasted more than two hours.
Defying gender stereotypes, men were not only willing to talk and share their feelings, they were actually eager to do so. What a gift to fathers—and mothers— to stop defining a man’s nurturing parenting as “playing Mr. Mom.” Describing a father’s paternal instincts as feminine or “motherly” not only doesn’t accurately reflect the display of nurturing behaviors that are more prevalently being demonstrated by dads, but it also discourages the positive rethinking of parenting roles and responsibilities that most parents say they desire. Expanding the roles of fathers from “breadwinner” and “disciplinarian” to include say, “nurturer” and “at-home dad,” holds great promise for a more balanced family dynamic and expands possibilities and outcomes for moms, dads, and children alike.
Such an expansion of roles:
- acknowledges human and social interdependence
- is more tolerant of a wider array of possibilities and relationships
- removes significant traditional barriers to human development
- broadens our potential for self-fulfillment and self-actualization
- minimizes arbitrary and constricting gender role expectations that pigeonhole and handicap both women and men
Why do we still refer to “maternal instinct” yet question the existence of “paternal instinct”? While not minimizing the validity, importance, and unique gender-related qualities of each of these instincts, isn’t it high time we drop the gender qualifier and refer to this behavior more broadly as parents’ “nurturing instincts”?”
The more opportunities we have to acknowledge the roles that both parents can play, the better. Moreover, the different ways that mothers and fathers nurture their children contribute to improving children’s overall wellbeing, as well as the wellbeing of the moms and dads who nurture them. These differences should be celebrated, not homogenized.
Although “Mr. Mom” may have served an important transitional purpose in society’s thinking about parenting, the idea of dads merely being “substitute moms” has thankfully given way to a fuller and more egalitarian understanding of the unique roles and contributions that both moms and dads can and should play in their children’s lives.
While it may not yet be time to expand the adage, “It’s as American as motherhood, fatherhood, and apple pie,” by saying goodbye to the outdated, inaccurate label “Mr. Mom,” we are getting ever closer.
Allan Shedlin is the founder of the DADvocacy Consulting Group (DCG), the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. He cocreated and cofacilitates the Armor Down/Daddy Up! and Mommy Up! programs. He also cocreated and codirects the KIDS FIRST! Daddying Film Festival. A father of three, grandfather of five, and “bonus dad” to many, he has been writing about education and parenting for four decades. A version of this piece originally appeared in DCG’s weekly Daddying blog.